Keynote Speaker Tami Charles’ Words of Wisdom

My wonderfully talented author friend Tami Charles was the keynote speaker at this past weekend’s NJSCBWI Annual Conference. She was so inspiring and this lovely post by author Naomi Gruer captures the spirit and light of her speech so well! Be inspired!

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Author Tami Charles

Charles delivering her keynote speech at the NJSCBWI18 conference.

Inspiration for Everyone

Tami Charles, whose middle grade novel Like Vanessa debuted in March, delivered a keynote speech at the NJSCBWI18 conference this past weekend.

She talked about the value of hope. “Somewhere between no and yes lies hope.”

She talked about rejections. “The word no has empowered me, broken me, and put me back together again.”

She talked about persistence. “You keep writing. You don’t stop.”

And she said, “Step into your greatness.”

Thanks, Tami, for words of wisdom that ring true for me as a writer and also for anyone trying to reach a seemingly insurmountable goal.

Click here to watch a short video about Charles and Like Vanessa. Take one guess which book I’m buying as gifts for some important tween girls in my life.

In this semi-autobiographical debut novel set in 1983, Vanessa…

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EXTRA! EXTRA! News Reporter Miss A. Weighs in on Latest AUTHOR VISIT!

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As part of our homeschool time together, I have looked for opportunities to make writing experiences as authentic as possible for my reluctant writer, so when Miss A. asked if she could join me on a Friday afternoon author visit to her old elementary school, I said yes – IF she agreed to be a journalist for the afternoon – taking notes on the visit, conducting a few interviews, and then putting it all together into a news article, using the format we’ve been examining while reading our local newspaper together.  She fully embraced the assignment!  Take it away, Miss A!

AUTHOR LAURA SASSI VISITS SCHOOL

By Miss A.

CRANFORD – On Friday, May 4th, my mother, picture book author Laura Sassi, came to Bloomingdale Avenue School to share her new book, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse with kindergarteners through second graders. The purpose of her visit was to get kids excited about reading and writing and to share a little bit about how a picture book goes from inspiration to publication. 

Starting at 1:00 pm, three different groups came to the auditorium for this special event. The students quietly listened to their teachers and all had smiles on their faces. The kids looked very excited and happy to see that a special guest had come to visit them at their school. 

Dressed like a diva herself, and using lots of expression, even singing, Laura Sassi read her newest book. The kids “ooohed” and “aaahed” as if they were watching fireworks. After reading Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse, the author showed the students the very first drafts of her story. She even showed the kids pictures of what Diva Delores looked like before she was a seal. The kids were surprised that she was once a hippo! Untitled

A few days after the visit, I had the chance to interview a student and two teachers to see what they thought of the visit. Everyone was very positive. Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Benoit, said that the favorite part for her students was “the author in costume and the use of her voice demonstrating not just fluency, but voices and even sound effects”.   She added that because of the visit, “The use of voices is starting to show up in speech bubbles in their writing.”  

Second grade teacher, Mrs. Oricchio, praised the visit as making “the art of writing a ‘real world’ experience” for her students.  She added, “I think Mrs. Sassi’s energy and passion for her work really came through and inspired my young writers.”

I was lucky enough to get student feedback as well! Second grader, Taylor, explained that her favorite part of the visit was when the author “dressed up fancy and was reading Diva Delores”.  She added that the visit also inspired her to make a writing notebook for her own stories. 

It was amazing being able to see my author mom in action reading her book. I could tell that the teachers and all the students enjoyed the visit. My mom enjoyed it too, especially when one of the students raised her hand and said, “You look like a movie star!” But my favorite moment was when I was able to reunite with all my teachers from kindergarten through second grade. I was so happy to be able to see my teachers and I was so happy to see so many kids enjoying and listening to the book.

FAN MAIL with MISS A: Thank you, Tami Charles!

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Today Miss A. – my reluctant reader and writer – asked if she could write a guest post to share her excitement over receiving an author-response to a recent fan letter she wrote to an author whose book she LOVED.  Maybe, I need to rephrase this… Today, my daughter, who USED to be a reluctant reader and writer – asked if she could write this guest post.  My response?  Of course!  Take it away, Miss A.! 

Have you ever been inspired to write a letter to an author whose book you loved?  Well, I was inspired to write one to author Tami Charles after reading her book Like Vanessa (Charlesbridge, 2018).

Like Vanessa is about a girl named Vanessa who enters a school pageant as a way of finding her happiness and who discovers that happiness isn’t found exactly where she thought it was.  

After reading Tami’s book, I just knew I had to reach out to her.  In the letter, I told her how much I loved her book and how I found her book such an inspiration for me. I found her book inspiring because I’ve always had trouble having to speak up for myself. Her book shows me that I can be strong and have confidence in myself.

I’ve written fan letters before, but never gotten a response. This time, however, was different because in the mail today I received a special letter from Tami Charles! And here is a little piece of that letter:

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In her wonderful letter, she explained that she wrote the book for girls just like me and she thanked me for writing her an old-fashioned letter!  I may even get to meet her this summer!  

Thank you, Tami, for inspiring me with your book and for taking the time to answer my letter!  I will keep it tucked forever in my copy of Like Vanessa!

THE POWER OF SETTING: Thoughts on Making Picture Books Shine

Setting Collage 5:13:18This morning, I am honored to be guest blogging over at picture book author Danna Smith’s blog, Picture Book Playlist. Today’s topic?  The power of SETTING to make a picture book story SHINE. So, I hope you refill that delicious cup of coffee you’re sipping right now and pop on over for a read.  I’ll make it easy for you.  Here’s the link.  Thank you for having me, Danna!

“Scuffin” or “Mone”: 4 TIPS to TEST the TASTINESS of your STORIES

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My daughter loves creating new recipes and one of her favorite strategies in the kitchen is to take a tried-and-true favorite, and then add an unexpected twist.  Most of the time her creations are delicious, but tonight, as I’m reminiscing about her joyful kitchen spirit, I’m reminded of the time she proudly offered me her fresh out of the oven creation – “the scuffin”, as she called it, a creative combination of two favorite teatime treats – the muffin and the scone.  Sounds delish, right?

We thought so too, so before actually tasting them, we posted on Facebook this delectable-looking picture along with this tantalizing description:  

“Crispy on the outside like a scone and fluffy on the inside like a muffin…with chocolate chips too. Yum!”

Immediately, “likes” and congratulatory comments filled my Facebook timeline.  But, to our horror, when we took our first nibbles we discovered they were… awful! Thus, in the interest of full-disclosure, I added this to the post:

“…to be perfectly honest, once we tried them we both agreed that they were a little heavy and they stuck to the paper. I think, in all honesty, that they should be called “mones” instead of “scuffins” because that better connotes the feeling you have have after eating one.”

Writing can be a lot like baking. Often, the results of experimentation are successful, but sometimes instead of picture book “scuffins” we produce “mones”.  So what’s the secret to distinguishing between story drafts that are light and delicious, as opposed to “mone” inducing?  Miss A. and I are so glad you asked. Here are our suggestions:

TIP #1: Give your “scuffin”, er story, time to cool before tasting. This will allow you to remove yourself a little from the the process, so that you can discern – without so much emotion – whether your creation is light and delicious… or not.

 TIP #2: Keep track of  drafts so you know what’s working or not in each round of recipe, er story, creation, so you can add and modify intelligently. After assessing her recipe notes, Miss A. thought, perhaps, that she added too much oil to her batter, and in revising for the next batch, she used less.  The new “scuffins”, IMHO, were better, as a result. Likewise, if you keep track of changes/additions/deletions made to each draft of your story, you can more easily assess and make effective improvements.

TIP #3: Let a few trusted critiquers sample and give feedback on your latest “scuffin” in progress.  As Miss A. discovered, the feedback from a slightly more seasoned baker (me!), was just what she needed to take her “scuffin” from “mone” to “magnifique”!

TIP #4: DO NOT send to local bakeries, i. e. publishers, too soon!  Not that Miss A has even considered marketing her kitchen creations, it’s still good advice. Far too many new writers, submit their work to publishers far too quickly when patience, I have learned, is the better way… by FAR!

Well, that’s it from the Sassi kitchen today!  Happy story baking!

SCHOOL VISIT: Thank you, West End School of North Plainfield!

 

I LOVED sharing DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE with the amazingly attentive 280+ kindergarten- second graders at West End School in North Plainfield. It was my largest gathering to date, but that didn’t stop them from being fabulous listeners. How do I know? I know because they laughed at all the right parts and were sad and concerned at all the right parts. Moreover, both before and after the story, they were right with me as we chatted about where writers get their ideas and what it means to use our imaginations. And when I asked them about readerly things such as the story’s setting, characters, conflict and even theme, those hands shot up like lightning and the answers they provided were bright and on target as anything. In fact, they were such an attentive, inquisitive bunch, that I even opened the floor to questions!  

The visit was one of the culminating events for a month long celebration of reading and writing and I’d just like to close by complimenting the teachers. You are doing a wonderful job of instilling those sweet kids with a love of reading and writing and that makes my heart happy!

Thank you for having me, West End School, and thank you for organizing the event, Barnes and Noble (Springfield, NJ)

HAPPY READING AND WRITING, all!

Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse BLOG TOUR: Stops FOUR and FIVE!

IMG_6273The official Diva Delores Blog Tour continued yesterday and again today with stops at Vivian Kirkfield’s PICTURE BOOKS HELP KIDS SOAR blog.  Yesterday, DIVA DELORES was featured as Vivian’s Perfect Picture Book Friday pick  and today I’m featured today on her Will Write for Cookies series weighing in with my thoughts about cookies, of course, as well as some hopefully tasty insights into why I write for kids, who my favorite favorite authors were as a kid and more. Oh, yes, and there’s a giveaway as well!

Please pop over. There are cookies!

*Delightfully decorated cookie (shown above) created by Miss A!

DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE: We’re Going on Tour… BLOG TOUR!

It’s official! In celebration of the release of my newest picture book, we’re going on tour! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be making stops at the following blogs. There will be interviews, giveaways and more.  Please stop by!DIVA DELORES BLOG TOUR FLYER pdf

IN MEMORY OF MY EIGHTH GRADE TEACHER:  Thank you, Shirley Vaux!

IMG_5668Thursday night out of the blue, while on Facebook, I was “waved” at by my ninth grade English teacher.  I’d never been “waved” at before, but it seemed fun, so I “waved” back and then she sent me a “thumbs up”.  This teacher and I reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago when she commented on a mutual friend’s post and I decided I wanted to reach out to thank her for the profound influence she had in fostering my love of writing.  Indeed, Mrs. Rebholz was the first teacher to encourage me not to settle for the first thought that crossed my mind during discussion or when writing, but to “keep percolating” as she called it.  I’ve written a couple of posts about  the influence her challenge to “keep percolating”  has had on my writing. You can find those here and here. But I digress.

After our friendly “wave”, I decided, on impulse, to ask her if she was in contact with another special teacher from my Valley View Junior High days.  Earlier last year, I had attempted to get in contact with this teacher, but without success.  Now, here suddenly, was a new opportunity. Full of hope, I sent her this inquiry via Facebook message:

“Are you ever in touch with Shirley Vaux? She taught creative writing and I had her in eighth grade. I kept a creative journal for her in that class which I still have. I would love to reconnect with her if she remembers me.  Is she on Facebook?”

Her answer stunned me.  “Her funeral was today.  She would have loved to know your success.  Keep percolating.”

Saddened that I had waited too long to say thank you, and a little in disbelief over the sorrowful news, I quickly googled “Shirley Vaux obituary MN” and, sure enough, there it was in the Star Tribune. As I read the obituary, I marveled at what a remarkable woman Shirley Vaux was.  Not only did she teach English for years and years, but she was also (long after I graduated) the principal of my high school.  And I could tell by the obituary, that she was a beloved wife, companion, sister, mother, grandmother, and even great-grandmother.

Overcome with emotion, I decided, again on impulse, to leave a comment using the newspaper’s comment function. This is what I wrote:

“I was just tonight asking Carolyn Rebholz, who I reconnected with via Facebook, if she was in touch with Mrs. Vaux, as I wanted to reach out and thank her for the wonderful creative foundation she helped set in place for my future writing endeavors. Alas, I was just a few days too late. She was a gifted teacher and beautiful soul. I still have (and treasure) the creative journal she had us keep in her eighth grade creative writing class. Blessings to her family.”

But now, as I’ve been percolating over the whole situation, I realize I want to remember her more fully. And the way I want to honor her memory today – is by saying THANK YOU for being one of the best teachers a young, tentative writer could have!

I had the privilege of having Mrs. Shirley Vaux for a one semester creative writing class in the spring of my eighth grade year. Over the course of the semester, Mrs. Vaux opened the channels of imagination and wordplay for her students. We wrote poems, character sketches, short stories and even picture books.  But the assignment that forever shaped who I have become as a writer was her introduction of a writer’s journal. Each day for eight weeks, we were to keep a daily writer’s journal because good writers, as she explained, needed space to write freely and explore.

IMG_5659This is the journal I chose to use. Over the course of the next eight weeks, I diligently wrote in it every day. And those moments of writing were the best moments of each day. I couldn’t wait to write!  I wrote about my memories of living France. I captured snippets of conversations on the school bus. I experimented with free verse.  And each week, Mrs. Vaux, diligently and lovingly read each entry and responded!  With comments like theseIMG_5661… and these.IMG_5663

And after the eight weeks ended, I kept writing. I’m not kidding.  By the end of high school, I had filled this many journals….IMG_5664

by the end of college, this many…IMG_5665

by the end of my first eight years of teaching this many…IMG_5666

by the time my children were school age, this many…IMG_5667

and to date… this many!IMG_5668

And when I stopped teaching to raise my family, I started submitting stories and poems to magazines.  Lots and lots of magazines.. a whole thick binder of clippings worth! IMG_5669 2 And then I delved into picture books with first one… then two…then three… with one more due out at the end of next year… with hopefully more after that!

 

 

Dear Mrs. Vaux,  I am so sorry that I missed the chance to thank you for the special role you played in getting this ball rolling.  But now, I hope, that perhaps by posting this, your loved ones can know, as indeed they must already know, what a special person you were!

THANK YOU, Mrs. Vaux and rest in beautiful peace.

(Please share, if you are so moved, in the hopes that Shirley Vaux’s loved ones will know that – near and far – she is remembered fondly and with great respect.)

Sincerely,

Laura

PUMPKINS: Thoughts On Carving Stories

IMG_1284This year my newly minted teen has decided that she doesn’t want to go trick-or-treating. Instead, she wants to dress up and hand out candy right here on our front porch.  And, between customers, she plans to carve her very first Jack-o-lantern (as a teen).  It sounds like a wonderful way to spend Halloween to me and it reminds me of one of my favorite fall posts from 2014.  Enjoy!

The way I see it, the stories we write are like pumpkins. The good ones are well-rounded with firm plots. They also possess a certain quirkiness, or one-of-a-kind feel, just like those jack-o-lanterns we enjoy at this time of year.

But here’s the thing. Even if you think your current pumpkin-in-progress is the best pumpkin you’ve ever written, most likely it could still use a good scooping out. Sure, extracting the extraneous goopy bits from your story will be messy, perhaps even disheartening. You may say to yourself, I’m taking out all the best parts. You may may even worry that there’s nothing left!

But, getting rid of the goop will help you hone the structural essence of your story. All those gloppy first-draft ramblings will have been scooped away. Then, to make your story glow, you will need to carve your pumpkin’s soul (i.e. face) with purpose and heart. Add jagged teeth (conflict) and a penetrating gaze (character). Maybe even carve in some goofy eyebrows (humor). Don’t rush. Savor the process. And when you are ready, light a candle and see if your story, er pumpin, glows! If it does, rejoice! If not, double check to make sure you haven’t overlooked any hidden goop. Then keep carving as necessary.

But don’t toss that goop out too quickly! For tangled in those slimy strings, you will find something precious – seeds. For various reasons, these discarded seeds didn’t fit your current pumpkin’s plot. But if saved and explored later, a special few of them may germinate into new and completely different, but wonderfully creative pieces.

Happy Pumpkin Carving all! And don’t forget to save the seeds.